A well-known Northland dive company has avoided prosecution over an incident in which two children were trapped in a sea cave by agreeing to a raft of measures to improve safety and help the victims.
Those measures are expected to cost Dive! Tutukaka, which is based on the Tūtūkākā Coast about 30km north of Whangārei, more than $250,000.
WorkSafe, which led the investigation, said that was more than the company may have been fined if the prosecution had gone ahead.
The drama unfolded in December 2020 when Dive! Tutukaka took a group of students from Tauraroa Area School on a kayaking and snorkelling trip to the Poor Knights Islands.
During the trip, a 14-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy were stuck in a sea cave after their shared kayak capsized in choppy waters.
The girl feared she would drown when her foot became wedged in a crevice.
According to a WorkSafe report, she had to hold her breath each time a wave swept over her head.
She was rescued by a Dive! Tutukaka staff member, but he was unable to get the boy out because he was paralysed with fear on a ledge inside the cave.
The boy and his rescuer remained there until the Northland Rescue Helicopter arrived about two hours later. They were able to exit the cave once the tide had dropped.
According to WorkSafe, all three suffered cuts and abrasions and the children were traumatised.
WorkSafe specialist interventions acting head Catalijne Pille said the company had committed to “putting things right” by entering into a legally binding safety pledge, known as an enforceable undertaking.
That commitment included paying reparations to the two young victims; training for Dive! Tutukaka workers; funding and training for the Northland Rescue Helicopter and Tūtūkākā Coastguard; water confidence programmes for local rangatahi; and partnering with Education Outdoors New Zealand to upskill providers working with schools.
“The investment Dive! Tutukaka will make exceeds what even the courts may have ordered in penalties. This demonstrates a substantial commitment to health and safety, with benefits circled back to the community, workers, and the industry,” Pille said.
WorkSafe would monitor progress and could resume prosecution if the commitments were not met.
“In light of this incident at the Poor Knights Islands, and the recent fatality at Abbey Caves, this commitment is a timely boost for the outdoor education system. Students should be able to participate in activities safely, and parents must have confidence their rangatahi will be kept safe,” Pille said.
School’s board pays student victims
Tauraroa Area School’s Board of Trustees faced the same charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act of exposing individuals to risk of harm or illness.
The board was sentenced in Whangārei District Court in December 2022 and ordered to pay reparation to the two students. The amount paid was suppressed.
The school board was not fined due to its financial circumstances.
Dive! Tutukaka director Kate Malcolm said a conviction for the company, or a fine that disappeared into the justice system’s coffers, would not have done anyone a good service.
“I think we can do a better thing with that money by putting it directly into the community over a long period of time, and that’s what we chose to do,” she said.
It was not a “get out of jail free card” or an easy option, but it was the best path for healing and moving forward.
“You can just suck it up, get a conviction and pay the money, and keep doing what you’re doing. But this is about fundamental change. Because the children, and their learnings and outdoor experiences as they way-find and navigate, are our future. Our purpose really is to help them and to make sure it’s possible for them to do that safely,” Malcolm said.
As part of the commitment, the company was developing outdoor leadership programmes and offering time, boats and facilities to the rescue helicopter trust and Tūtūkākā Coastguard.
That would allow training otherwise unavailable to community services and improve safety for everyone along the coast.
The incident had also been tough on her staff, Malcolm said.
“Even though we did get everybody home that afternoon, we certainly left some trauma and some scrapes and bruises on two of the children in particular. My team also felt it very strongly – they define themselves about how they deliver a day and how they share the experience of the Poor Knights Islands. So it’s deeply affected us.”
The company was working with the families of the two children in the hope of helping them heal, she said.